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  • Annette Dawm

Hello from London with Joe Haidar

Joe Haidar is a former Disney animator and story artist. He has literally had a hand in working on many of the classic 2D animated films from the 1990's. He is now "working very hard" to get more of his own original work out there.

For the past several weeks, he has been staying in London, ON while visiting his mother. On May 3, 2024 Joe participated in a discussion about his career alongside director, Rob McCallum at TAP Centre for Creativity. McCallum’s film, Mr. Dressup: The Magic of Make-Believe and Haidar’s short film, Animated American were both screened at the event. A question and answer session followed which can be viewed here.

During his time at TAP, Joe sold prints of his work as well as tote bags and t-shirts for the first time, which he said was “pretty cool!”

“I’ve never sold my work before. It’s a weird thing. I don’t sell drawings or do commissions or any of that. It’s probably something I should be doing now that I have more time…. My friends do it all the time. Strangely, it’s never occurred to me to do it. Now I want to try it more! It’s fun! I love comic cons but I’ve also never had a table at a comic con. It’s a little intimidating, but maybe I’ll try and find a way to start that.”

Regarding his stay in London, Joe said, “I come here often because my mother lives here…. I’m learning more about London, because normally when I come here I only hang out with mom and go. So this time, I’m staying longer and hanging out with the other artists that I’m meeting at TAP Centre for Creativity. I’m enjoying that community. It makes London a little bit more accessible to me. This has been my most active visit!”

While Joe’s mother has been supportive throughout his animation career, she has also found ways to keep him grounded.

“I think there’s a maternal pride about it, but my mom’s also not a ‘blow your own horn’ kind of person. She likes people to be a little bit less full of themselves.” He laughed. “Sometimes she thinks, ‘Are you talking about yourself a little bit too much?’ ….I’m like, ‘Mom! People are interested! I’m just answering questions!’”

“….Being an ‘animator’ was just sort of a word when I was 18-19. It was something that I thought I understood, but I didn’t even have a clue what being an animator meant back then. It was just a way of combining my two passions which are drawing and film. I thought, ‘Wow! Look at this! You could actually combine movie making with drawing!’ I mean, it was exciting! So, that’s about as much thought that I gave it when I became an animator, until I got into the industry more and more. I saw the level of work that people were doing and I moved to England. I saw amazing artists who were working. They had their own studios in little boutiques. The studios were spread throughout the west end of London. A lot of us were working at different studios at that time and you’d get exposed to different artists and their styles. I just thought, ‘Man, this thing is much deeper than I thought!’”

Before long, Joe got his first major animation job on Who Framed Roger Rabbit?. This experience would influence his own film, Animated American decades later in 2008.

“…On Roger Rabbit, I started to realize that you also have to act. Acting and performance became much more important than just moving a drawing around.  Then I moved to Los Angeles where I was working with the best people in the world that did Hollywood’s Disney style animation. It was all based on performance and that’s something that was really a revelation to me. I tried really hard to understand how to do that. Every animator was putting himself in his work and that was another step for me. It went very well for me for a long time, but then eventually hand drawn animation was ended. I like to say it was suffocated—killed in Hollywood.”

Eventually, Joe and many of his peers moved onto the Story Department at Disney. As he explained, “We all had to make a big decision. Either become a computer animator or find something else to do. I tried computer animation and I could do it. It was fine, but I didn’t have the love for it and I’ve got to love it! ….For me, it can’t just be ‘I like it. It’s good enough.’ So the thing that always interested me was story."

"At Disney, we didn’t get the opportunity to work in story if you were an animator. Very few animators were allowed to move into the Story Department. This was my chance to do that.... We refer to it more as ‘story’ versus ‘storyboarding’, but it is storyboarding. It’s storyboarding with the ideas. You’re almost like a little, mini director. You get to create a sequence and you direct it yourself. That really appealed to me and I took a storyboarding program at the studio.  I jumped in and transitioned that way. That way, I could continue to draw and that was a key thing. I have to keep drawing! ….It seemed like the obvious transition.”

Haidar wanted people to know that as an artist, he is “pretty light-hearted”. “I’m not a very serious artist. I like to do things that are fun and sincere and ultimately entertaining! I’m not someone who would want to just do a still-life or a pastoral landscape. I have to have story. I have to have some form of entertainment about it. That’s kind of how my brain thinks….”

This is part of the reason why he and his co-director, James (Jim) Baker wanted Animated American to be “funny and entertaining in its own light”.

“…When I left Disney, it was not a great time. By the time I had left, it was in turmoil and a little toxic. The party was definitely over and they were transitioning to computer animation, which none of us really understood. They had the best 2D animators and artists in the world, all under one roof. We were all hitting our stride.”

“They already had Pixar, which was the best computer animation studio and you’re going, ‘Why do we need two computer animation studios? Why don’t we just keep one computer and the other one traditional?’ but no one asked our opinion so it was going the way it was going. It was a bit of a sad time."

"…. My buddy, Jim Baker, who was also an animator with me at Disney left roughly at the same time. We lived near each other and we were chatting and we were thinking, ‘Hey, wouldn’t it be fun to make our own film for a change?’ We decided to collaborate on our own film together and we thought, ‘We just went through this tumultuous period of time. Let’s make a film that reflects a little bit of what we went through.’ We thought about it and the idea that Roger Rabbit presented, which is, ‘What if cartoon characters are real? They’re living in Los Angeles and they’re actors.’”

“I thought, ‘Okay, if they’re real and they are living in L.A. as actors, they’re all unemployed now because computer animation has eaten their lunch! So how are they going to react?’”

It turned out that the cartoon characters in this universe (known as Animated Americans) would react by choosing revenge. “We did this slightly Twilight Zone, revenge-filled short…. We thought that was sort of a good way of reflecting what happened to us. Maybe it was therapeutic for us to do it. So that was the impetus behind the film.” As of today, the film is in the process of being adapted into a series. This time, it will explore the impact that AI has or will have on the cartoons living in L.A.

The original short film starred Jason Marsden who is known for voicing the character, Max in A Goofy Movie and An Extremely Goofy Movie. After being offered the role of Eric Moeberg, Jason suggested that Bill Farmer (the voice of Goofy) should also join the cast.

According to Joe, “Weirdly enough, when I first arrived at Disney, the first person I sat next to was Kevin Lima, the director of A Goofy Movie. We were both working on The Rescuers Down Under. They seated me next to him and that’s how we met, which was great! Then Kevin went onto look for his first directing job and that was A Goofy Movie!

“Coincidentally, my daughter was taking ballet. The head of the ballet school was a well-known dancer who was Jason Marsden’s father, Myles Marsden. So I got to meet Jason when he was very young….” He continued.

“Jason and I became friends. He was a big animation fan. So when Jim and I wanted to make the short film, we both knew Jason and we immediately thought, ‘Let’s get Jason for this role!’ We went to see Jason and we had just roughed out a couple of pages for the script. We just wanted to say, ‘Hey, we were thinking of you for this part. Would you consider doing it?’”

He was amazing! He said, ‘Absolutely!’ He said he would do it without even having a finished script. We were just elated and then along the way, he’s good friends with Bill Farmer, of course! So he said, ‘You should get Bill Farmer for this part!’ and he brought Bill for us. We didn’t know Bill at the time and the two of them were just fantastic! That’s how it goes, man! You get so lucky by the people that you meet and it was really smart on our part to think of Jason. He was great at inviting Bill Farmer to play that character! Wow! We lucked out! It’s amazing how A Goofy Movie has taken off….”

Along with Jason and Bill, many of Haidar’s collaborators have become some of his greatest friends. These friendships have been the most rewarding part of his career.

“….No one ever told me, ‘Oh, you’re a creative person!’ It’s so funny because I’m re-connecting with all of my high school friends now. I love them all, but none of them took a path like I did. So I was growing up with a lot of people who became mathematicians or scientists or engineers. They were all doing more academic stuff. I always felt very out of place among my peers.”

Growing up, Joe said he struggled with how to be an adult who just wanted to draw cartoons for a living. However, once he moved to Los Angeles, he discovered how much he had in common with the other creative people on staff.

“‘….I just felt like, ‘I don’t know, is this really the right thing?’ Had I met all of these guys when I was younger, I maybe would have had less anxiety about it….We’re all the same. We have the same references. We love the same stuff. Now you’re like, in your own tribe.’ That’s what makes it really amazing. The people I’ve met along the way and what they’ve taught me about things I didn’t know about.” He learned from animation experts but he was also exposed to films and comic books that he “might have missed”.

He added, “All that stuff, to me is so rewarding. I tend to hang out a little bit with the director of Beauty and the Beast, Kirk Wise. Over the years, we’ve discovered that we had a lot of common interests when we were younger…. I didn’t really get a chance to know him as much when we were working together. Now we’ve spent a lot more time together and it’s been really fun.  A lot of other guys that I’ve met along the way are still my friends today. We all have common values in our interests and I know for me, that was a revelation.”

Following his work on Beauty and the Beast, Joe continued to animate on films like Aladdin, Pocahontas, Mulan and many others. He also pitched the idea for Hercules.

“We were working on Aladdin at the time, so it was around 1990. Jeffrey Katzenberg ran our division, pretty much. He opened the door and said let’s have our artists pitch projects…. He allowed us all to come in with a pitch and I really wanted to pitch! I’d never pitched before. I didn’t know how to do it, but somehow, I kind of put together this idea that they are only interested in known properties. So I immediately decided not to pitch an original idea. I thought, ‘They did The Little Mermaid. We did Beauty and the Beast and we’re doing Aladdin at the moment. These are all known stories.’ So I thought about what other known story we could find. I was searching and searching. I landed on Hercules because I thought that you could go anywhere in the world and say that name and people would know who that is, and it’s public domain.”

“I quickly read about it and I came up with a storyline that I thought would be cool. I was also very into doing something with a bit more of a boy-centric story. So many of our stories felt girl-centric…. I was also tapping into the Ray Harryhausen movies that I’d grown up with. You know, they were sort of about guys against mythological creatures….”

“When I pitched it, it was not perfect. I was so nervous…. I fumbled my way through it and I think there were at least 40 or 45 of us in the room waiting for our turn…. You were not allowed to talk once you were finished. You were supposed to sit and not move. Like, you can’t leave the room! So you had to sit through everybody else’s pitches. I was the second one to get picked. The first one was a guy who pitched – I believe it was The Odyssey. It was another Greek mythology. At the time, I felt like he got decimated! They thought the idea was too big. They asked, ‘How are we going to contain it?’”

“I thought, ‘Oh boy! This guy’s getting reamed!’ I hoped that at least 10 people would be between me and him, but alas, I was number two. I thought, ‘Oh my God! Here I am with another Greek mythology and they just sounded like they panned that one!’ Sure enough, I got the same treatment.”

“Of course, down the road, I discovered that that’s when they’re interested. The guy who went before me also got picked. Five projects got picked and they were mostly the people who got yelled at…. When they’re interested, they’re kind of going at you. They’re attacking you. When they’re not interested, they’re zoned out and they’re just letting you drone on until the clock is over for your pitch, so that was a big lesson for me. I had nothing more to do with the film… once the project went into development…. When Hercules started going into development, I was more focused on animating. Once it went into production, I had moved onto Mulan. So I never actually worked on it and that’s how that went.”

Out of all of the characters he’s drawn, Haidar exclaimed that John Smith from Pocahontas was the most challenging.

“That character was incredibly difficult to draw! John Pomeroy was the Supervising Animator of John Smith. His level of draftsmanship was—and still is—very, very high! He was doing things that the rest of us had to figure out and follow…. Disney would have life drawing classes…. So I would go down to our life drawing classes during lunch and practice as hard as I could. I had a really great teacher, Steve Houston! He was really a phenomenal draftsman! He was able to push me to elevate my draftsmanship on the human form, which is what I needed desperately to keep up with John Smith. That character and that movie was the most challenging! He was a very unforgiving character. His face alone… you have to just kiss the paper in a certain way and if you’re off by a hairline it just [doesn’t work]. A lot of people were off on that guy.”

“Angled faces are very hard to do and Mulan is just an oval. She’s a little bit more forgiving. If she changed her head angle, it’s still an oval. With John Smith, it’s a brick! So you’re dealing with angles and plains on the face. They’re going to change if his head changes perspective in any way. That’s just another layer of complexity to that character. The acting had to be very, very restrained….”

In contrast to Robin Williams’ portrayal of The Genie in Aladdin, John Smith didn’t have “any wacky acting at all”. Despite the struggle of bringing John Smith to life, Joe admitted that he could still draw him today if he had to.

The Genie also presented his own set of challenges due to his proximity to Aladdin in most scenes. While Joe worked on Genie, another animator worked on Aladdin and they had to figure out how to make them appear together seamlessly. Often they would discuss the scene together before putting it on paper.

Joe referred to the scene where The Genie impersonates Jack Nicholson. “…. He puts his arm around Aladdin and says, ‘Alright, Sparky! Here’s the deal!’ They’re very tightly controlled in that shot because the two of them are physically next to each other. I think it was Randy Cartwright who was doing Aladdin. I think we spoke and I said, ‘Since The Genie is the one who is instigating the scene, I will go first.’” He would then leave a space for the other artist to add Aladdin in later.

“….I love tactile characters. When characters can touch each other or push each other, I like that more…. We tried to work out that choreography and then I would go first and then because his character is reactive, he would react to what I did. It’s always the character that is the most proactive that sets the tone. If two characters are proactive and reactive at the same time, then the other animator will take over sometimes and it becomes a bit of a tennis match.”

“All of these characters get burned into your brain. It’s just muscle memory and you could probably replicate it. I always think it would be fun to go back…. If I could go back in time with what I know now, I would re-animate everything and do it so much better! It would be so different, but you do what you can at the time.” He added that Pocahontas required an extensive amount of live-action footage for artists to use as references.

Although Haidar did not work on The Hunchback of Notre Dame, he thought that it was another beautiful film alongside Pocahontas. He felt as though both films were more “sophisticated” and that they pushed the envelope in terms of what could be done with animation. Additionally, adults were now considered to be a larger part Disney’s demographic.

Unfortunately, the momentum that traditionally hand drawn films had in the 1990's did not carry over into the next few decades. According to Joe, people are not interested in funding them. While there are many 2D television shows available, Haidar would like for 2D animated features to become a priority again.

“…To this day, I find it incredible that we made all of these movies with just paper and paint and brushes. It just boggles my mind. The only technology we were using is a compositing tool to put it all together and to colour the animation. Everything you see in the films from the ‘90s was hand drawn. I just hope that people appreciate it because that art form is slowly dying out altogether—unless somebody can figure out how to save it. There are a lot of young kids who are still doing animation and I really hope they can find a way…. It’s a real mystery to me that 20 years later, hand drawn animation has not made a comeback in any way in Hollywood…. The worst part is—if nobody does anything— then this skill that we all learned is going to die with us. It will go the way of the dodo.”

Finally, when asked about his advice for others who wish to follow in his career path, Joe Haidar replied: “It’s so hard to answer that question because what I did and what people my age did does not exist anymore. So it’s hard to know how to guide anybody. Probably the only answer to that is, ‘If you feel it in your gut that this is something that you really, really want to do, then don’t let anybody talk you out of it’. Even though right now we’re all wondering what AI is going to do to our industry. It’s hard to know what the future is going to look like. What I did is I just followed my gut. I didn’t even know I was following my gut, but I was making really good decisions for my career. If the voice inside you speaks to you and says, ‘I really like this but I don’t like that’, keep going towards the stuff that you like until somehow it all opens up. That’s the only thing that I know works. I hope that helps other people….”

For more information, please visit Joe's website here.

Photo courtesy of Joe Haidar.

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